FROM THE caves of the Stone Age to cosmopolitan bedrooms in the 21st century, the argument has raged between the sexes: how to put off the patter of tiny feet, and who should be the one to do it. Contraception has evolved somewhat over the years, but the onus has traditionally fallen on the woman, and has not always worked.
Yesterday doctors said they had perfected a revolutionary method of birth control, a contraceptive implant for men. The small implant is inserted beneath the skin on one arm in a process that takes a few minutes.
It releases doses of the female sex hormone progesterone, which reduces sperm production to the point where the man is in effect infertile. Users are also given an injection of testosterone in their buttocks every three months to maintain hormone levels and avoid side-effects such as fatigue, hair loss and low sex drive.
Large-scale human trials of the implant are to start this month, and it may be available on the NHS within three years. The muted reaction from family planning groups to yesterday's announcement may stem from the fact that there have been several similar announcements of implants and pills for men over the past 10 years, but none has yet moved from the laboratory to the GP's surgery.
Pharmaceutical companies seem reluctant to spend the huge amounts of money which would be required to promote a new contraceptive method to the public. And then there is the much-rehearsed question: will a woman trust a man who says he is on the Pill or has had an implant?
There is still a massive imbalance between the sexes when it comes to contraception: women can use implants, pills, nasal sprays, stick- on patches, coils, rings and caps; men have only two options, the condom or the snip.
Philip Larkin famously said that sexual intercourse began in 1963, but contraception can be traced back to more than 4,000 years ago, when women in China drank mercury to prevent pregnancy. Even the Bible talks of birth control, although in terms that rather discourage it. The Book of Genesis tells how, on being ordered to procreate with his dead brother's wife, Onan opts for the withdrawal method, although the guilt later makes him commit suicide:
"Then Judah said to Onan: "Go in to your brother's wife, and perform your duty as a brother-in-law to her, and raise up offspring for your brother.
"And Onan knew that the offspring would not be his; so it came about that when he went in to his brother's wife, he wasted his seed on the ground, in order not to give offspring to his brother. But what he did was displeasing in the sight of the Lord, so he took his life also."
An ancient medical manuscript called the Ebers Papyrus, from 1550BC, advises women to grind together dates, acacia (tree bark) and honey into a paste, then smear the mixture over wool and insert the whole thing into their body.
In the second century, women used suppositories made of crocodile dung as contraceptives. History does not record how effective these were (although the aroma of the suppository may have been enough to dampen many an amorous Egyptian's libido).
But scientists now believe there may be some scientific basis for these types of contraception. Crocodile waste is the most acidic in the animal kingdom, and may have had a spermicidal effect during sex. Similarly, the wool and paste method may have worked because acacia ferments into lactic acid, a well-known spermicide.
In India, women ate carrot seeds in the belief they could prevent pregnancy, and native Americans brewed a drink made from dried beaver testicles to stop pregnancy.
Some historic contraceptive methods may have been based on science, but many others were little more than superstition. European women in the Middle Ages believed that if they wore a necklace with a bone from the right side of a black cat …